IT WAS one of the more shameful episodes in the Civil War in 1650, when the English, under Cromwell, defeated the poorly trained Scottish army at Dunbar. The English had been suffering from sickness and malnutrition during the stand-off, as they tried to reach Edinburgh, but, taking advantage of an unwise manoeuvre by the Scots, Cromwell made a surprise attack. After great slaughter, he pursued the remnant of the Scottish army for eight miles.
Exactly how many prisoners were taken is a subject of dispute: Cromwell claimed 10,000; the English Royalist leader with the Scots, Sir Edward Walker, said 6000, of which 1000 who were sick and wounded were quickly released. The remainder were force-marched southwards, many dying of starvation, illness, or exhaustion on the way (their English escort must also have suffered). Only 3000 were left to be imprisoned in Durham Cathedral.
The Cromwellians had little other use for cathedrals. Cold and neglected, the Scots tried to keep warm by burning the wooden furniture. By the time they were released, there were only 1400 survivors, and they were transported as convict labourers to the English colonies.
A belated attempt at reconciliation has now been made by the cathedral, thanks to George Wilson and Roy Pugh, from the Dunbar Local History Society, who have been active in raising awareness of the plight of the Scottish prisoners.
A memorial plaque to them (above), close to the altar of Queen Margaret of Scotland, was dedicated at evensong, on St Andrew’s Day last year, by the Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove.
“I am glad,” he said, “that we are at last honouring those who died in and around the cathedral during their imprisonment. The desecrated cathedral was, like them, a victim of the Civil War; so it is right that we should recall this bitter episode in Anglo-Scottish history.
“As we do this, we give thanks for the gift of reconciliation, and remember those who today continue to suffer cruelty at the hands of others.”